The terminology is in vogue but the principle is not. The phrase 'match-ups' had started to seep into T20 phraseology by the end of the 2016 T20 World Cup. See England's decision to bowl Joe Root's offbreaks to Chris Gayle in the final as evidence. However, since then, it has become ubiquitous.The question is simple: which bowler is best used against each batter? T20's brevity heightens the importance of each such decision, and the evolution and acceptance of data analysis means that more time is spent planning for opponents than ever before.
"It plays a huge role," Kieron Pollard, West Indies' captain, said last week, "and tactically it works more often than not."
The most common match-ups are the most obvious. "Since the dawn of spin bowling, the obvious strategy has been to turn the ball away from the batsman," Scyld Berry, the Daily Telegraph's chief cricket writer, has written. The logic is straightforward: turning the ball away from the bat makes it harder for batters to hit boundaries over the leg side, because you are taking the ball away from their hitting arc.
In general terms, those match-ups work. Across T20I cricket, left-arm orthodox spinners concede fewer runs per over against right-handed batters than right-lefties, while offspinners are comparatively cheaper against lefties. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they become a captain's go-to.
But in Sharjah on Sunday, in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh's opening Super 12s game, the deficiency of that basic strategy was exposed by batters set on taking their opponents' weak links down.
It started in the seventh over of Bangladesh's innings - on average, the second lowest-scoring over of any given T20 innings after the first, when batters look to consolidate after the fielding restrictions are lifted. With that in mind, and with two left-handers at the crease in Mohammad Naim and Shakib Al Hasan, Sri Lanka's captain Dasun Shanaka looked to squeeze in an over of his part-time offspinner, Charith Asalanka.Bangladesh saw an opportunity to target Asalanka and seized on it. Defending a short off-side boundary - some 16 metres shorter than the leg-side one - two of his first three balls were too wide outside off stump and duly smashed away for four. The sixth was straighter, but short enough for Shakib to give himself room outside leg stump and slash a cut for four. The over cost 14, and gave Bangladesh a boost straight after a relatively subdued Powerplay.
Asalanka was involved again, this time with the bat, to expose Bangladesh's strategy. Shakib struck twice in his second over, the ninth of the innings, to leave Sri Lanka 72 for 3. That quickly became 79 for 4 when Wanindu Hasaranga holed out to deep midwicket. That left Asalanka and Bhanuka Rajapaksa - both left-handers - together, and Mahmudullah immediately threw the ball to his primary offspinner, Mahedi Hasan.
Mahedi's first over cost five runs as Sri Lanka consolidated, and Mahmudullah saw a chance to bring himself on, again to turn the ball away from the left-handers' outside edge. He conceded five singles as the required rate climbed above 10 runs per over: with Shakib, Mustafizur Rahman and Mohammad Saifuddin able to bowl seven of the final eight overs between them, he only needed to find one more between his weaker bowlers.
But Mahmudullah gambled on another offspin/leftie match-up, bringing on Afif Hossain. Afif has occasionally been a handy part-timer in his career to date but has been used only sporadically: even with the match-up seemingly in his favour, it was a brave call to back him ahead of the left-arm spin of Nasun Ahmed, a frontline spinner who had knocked out the off stump of Kusal Perera - a left-hander - in the first over of the chase.
Rajapaksa saw a chance to target a young, inexperienced bowler and pounced, skipping down the pitch and lofting his first ball inside-out over extra cover for six. It was a brave decision, but with extra cover inside the circle and a short boundary to aim for, his 66-metre mishit was enough to clear the rope. Two balls later, he mistimed a sweep towards the long boundary; Liton Das, at deep backward square, dropped a simple catch.
The over cost 15 runs but meant that Mahmudullah could rely on his main three bowlers for the last seven, but after a tight first over, he continued to obsess about spinning the ball away from the bat. Mahmudullah kept himself on, and just as Shakib had done to the Sri Lankan earlier, Asalanka targeted him: he shimmied down to loft a straight six into the VIP seats, then mistimed a slog-sweep over the short side. The last two overs of part-time offspin cost 31, and suddenly, Sri Lanka were ahead of the required rate."It was a tactical decision, decided by the team management," Mushfiqur Rahim said afterwards, defending the move. "We don't believe, for example, that left-arm spinners can't bowl against left-handed batters. In today's game, the bowler created one opportunity. If it was taken, a right-handed batter would have come, and he would become more impactful."I think it is not fair to have an opinion on something just seeing the outcome. It is important to see whether the right bowler is bowling at the right time. The ground was small at one end, so bringing the left-arm spinner from that end would have been risky. Our captain and team management took the right decision." It was a bold defence of a call that cost them the game and left them struggling to make the semi-finals after only their first Super 12s game.
The lesson within is not that match-ups are ineffective: analysts rightly spend hours dissecting opposition batters, looking for any slight weaknesses and working out how to exploit them. More often than not, that planning pays dividends, but could Mahmudullah really be sure that offspin was the right option for Asalanka - playing only his fifth T20I - or Rajapaksa, who is dismissed regularly but scores quickly against it?Instead, this game was a reminder that match-ups are something more than rightie/leftie, in-spin and out-spin. When captains are on autopilot, making decisions without considering their remaining resources, the boundary dimensions and the flow of the game, batters can capitalise regardless the direction of turn.Stripped back to their most basic level, match-ups are about which bowler is best used against each batter; more often than not, the one who bowls for a living rather than as a part-timer will be a better option